March 20, 2013

Veblen Began Process That Continues Today Through Open Space Movement

To the Editor:

For five years I’ve been alerting the Princeton community to the importance of the historic Veblen House, located on the edge of Herrontown Woods on the northeast side of town. Part of the estate of the world famous visionary and mathematician, Oswald Veblen, the house was donated to the county back in 1974 with the intention that it become a nature center, library, and museum. Instead, it was rented out for many years, then boarded up. Saving a historic public building is a bit like trying to save a hospitable climate. People think it’s a nice idea, but imagine it’s just too costly. After my appeals met with mostly blank stares and unreturned emails, I decided it would be more rewarding to document Veblen’s multifaceted contributions to Princeton and the world. As with a study of nature, the closer you look, the more you see.

Veblen’s legacy, like the house he and his wife left in the public trust, has long remained hidden. It runs like a deep river beneath many aspects of life in Princeton we now take for granted. A pre-eminent university, the Institute for Advanced Study, Einstein’s long and cherished residency — Veblen played surprisingly instrumental roles in making these possible. His vision and influence were also fundamental in Princeton’s contributions to early computer development.
A recurrent feature of Veblen’s legacy is his capacity to bring disconnected entities together to create greater meaning. The layout of Jones Hall on the Princeton University campus was designed by Veblen to bring mathematicians together to share ideas. The Institute, too, achieved this goal on a larger scale, expedited by the tradition of afternoon tea begun by the Veblens. Whether recruiting mathematicians for the university, the Institute, or to help improve ballistics during the World Wars, Veblen displayed an uncanny eye for talent. With Norwegian and Midwestern pioneer roots, Veblen himself combined extraordinary intellect with a love of hands-on physical work. A wedding of Old and New World can be seen both in the architectural elements of the Veblens’ house and in their marriage — Elizabeth having been born in England.

All this “bringing together” can also be experienced when walking the trails of Princeton’s many nature preserves. A nature lover, Veblen served as “re-aggregator” of open space, consolidating small parcels in the 1930s with the intention of preserving large tracts — both at Herrontown Woods and the Institute Woods — and in that sense he began the process that continues today through Princeton’s open space movement. Herrontown Woods, donated by the Veblens in 1957, was Princeton’s first dedicated preserve. Though the Veblen House — a deep legacy next to a deep woods — remains neglected by the powers that be, Veblen’s founding efforts to mend pieces of land back together will be explored in a talk by author George Dyson on March 21 at 7 pm, hosted by D&R Greenway.

In a time marked by polarization and disconnection, both locally and nationally, Veblen’s legacy speaks to unity and a focus on the greater good. The house ( and accompanying woodlands can and should serve as a living portal for that legacy.

Stephen Hiltner

North Harrison Street